Many have heard of the well-known herbal adaptogens such as the Panax and American ginsengs, Eleuthero – which is sometimes called Siberian ginseng (although it is not actually a ginseng), Rhodiola, Ashwagandha, and others.
In herbalism, the term adaptogen carries with it a very specific meaning. Adaptogens are herbs which are always safe and gentle and affect the body by impacting the way the adrenal glands respond to chronic (or ‘non-specific’) periods of stress.
“Adaptogens increase the state of non-specific resistance in stress and decrease sensitivity to stressors, which results in stress protection, and prolong the phase of resistance (stimulatory effect). Instead of exhaustion, a higher level of equilibrium (the homeostasis) is attained the heterostasis. The higher it is, the better the adaptation to stress. Thus, the stimulating and anti-fatigue effect of adaptogens has been documented in both in animals and in humans.”Panossian, Alexander, and Georg Wikman.
“Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity.” Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland)
vol. 3,1 188-224. 19 Jan. 2010, doi:10.3390/ph3010188
Herbalist David Hoffman says that while adaptogens help the body endure stress longer, they are intended for the cessation of stress. The elimination of stress can occur in a variety of ways such as learning new techniques and skills to deal with the stressor(s) or some other type of change.
The purpose of adaptogens should not include doing nothing only to try to enable the body to take on stress indefinitely. If one chooses to use an adaptogen and do nothing about the stress, they will eventually burn out anyway.1 Herbal adaptogens are not meant to be a magic pill for stress avoidance.
Both chronic emotional stress and chronic infection(s) result in the ongoing release of cortisol and other steroidal glucocorticoids. Prolonged exposure to glucocorticoids can disrupt the interactions between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands (HPA axis).Rhodiola rosea
The HPA axis is a neuroendocrine system that regulates digestion, the immune system, energy storage and expenditure, and influences our mood and emotions. HPA axis dysfunction increases the risk of depression, anxiety, digestive and sleep problems, headaches, weight gain or loss, and heart disease. Fatigue, muscular weakness, excessive free radicals, mitochondrial dysfunction and increased levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines are also associated with HPA axis dysfunction.”
“All adaptogens contain antioxidants and other phytochemicals that are beneficial for the prevention of disease, support during acute infections and chronic diseases (cancer, autoimmune conditions, etc.), and protection from toxins (chemo, radiation, environmental toxins, and internal toxins).”
by Sharlene Peterson, Educational Administrator
Genesis School of Natural Health
The key to the action of a genuine adaptogen is that it must support the neuroendocrine system, specifically the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and in doing so “modulate and regulate the use of cortisol, allowing the body to maintain a healthy stress response. They also help regulate and support the interconnected neuroendocrine and immune systems allowing the body to maintain optimal homeostasis.” (Adaptogens, Winston & Maimes 2007)
The popularity of the term “adaptogen” has become a type of buzzword useful in creating a market for ‘super oils’ known to have ‘balancing’ properties.
Although quite a number of essential oils do have balancing properties in one way or another – they generally do not meet the accepted criteria for adaptogens. Only one essential oil (at this point) is known to function as a true adaptogen. Yet oddly enough, it is relatively unheard of as an adaptogenic essential oil.
There is one essential oil, however, whose roots grow deeper and that reaches ‘head and shoulders’ above all other potential essential oil contenders in terms of its adaptogenic effect. That is none other than the lowly conifer, the Black Spruce.
Black Spruce (Picea mariana)
As a relatively slow-growing pine of the Canadian boreal forest. Black spruce is found prolifically across North America expanding as far north as Alaska and as far south as the Great Lakes.
Robert Tisserand writes that historically, a strong decoction of the young branches of Picea marinara was made into a beverage called ‘spruce beer’ that was imbibed when on board ships to ward off scurvy. (Essential Oil Safety 2nd ed., Tisserand & Young, 2014)
Black spruce is a relative newcomer on the essential oil scene. It has only been processed commercially since the 1960s. The essential oil, is steam distilled from the tips of its fresh cut branches (twigs and needles). It is sustainably harvested as a seasonal waste product of the logging industry primarily in eastern Canada in the autumn and again in the late winter and early spring each year.
Picea mariana is a gentle remedy for which there is no known cumulative toxicity in low doses. Oxidized oils are contraindicated (as always) because irritation may present with topical use. Generally, and at appropriate dilutions, black spruce is not irritating nor is it sensitizing. It has a deep woody and earthy scent, as fresh and crisp as the air of a conifer forest.
Black spruce, as a true adaptogen is predominantly a “systemic neuroendocrine-immune restorative and regulator” for the chronically debilitated and fatigued with conditions resulting from deficiencies and imbalances of the “pituitary/adrenal/thyroid/thymus/ovarian (and other endocrine)” systems. (Aromatica, Volume 1 by Peter Holmes, LAc, MH)
“Black spruce arguably displays the largest range of therapeutic effects among these valuable conifer oils…
European practitioners have long established good clinical results using Black spruce as a booster and regulator of the HPA axis (Penel 1990). Syndromes of adrenal dysregulation and fatigue may be improved at the core with its internal use. Positive results have included regulation of pituitary–thyroid and pituitary-gonadal functions showing this remedy to benefit functional hypothyroid conditions as well as female hormonal dysregulation in general. In addition, immune functions have shown both short-term and long-term improvement.
…Black spruce has emerged with a newer, larger clinical profile that warrants defining it as a true adaptogen, in the same league as the herbal remedies Rhodiola, the Ginsengs and others. Taking the premise that an adaptogenic effect must involve the core triangle of physiology – the nervous, endocrine and immune systems – and moreover must have an essentially broad regulating effect on virtually all endocrine glands, proving useful for an exceptionally wide range of weak conditions. Chronic fatigue syndrome is perhaps its most telling indication here, involving as it does long-term neuro-hormonal and immune deficiencies…AROMATICA: A Clinical Guide to Essential Oil Therapeutics, Volume 1
Black spruce should be included in a large variety of formulations addressing chronic deficiency and dysregulation.”
Peter Holmes LAc, MH
Kurt Schnaubelt identifies Picea mariana as a restorer of depleted adrenal glands further extolling its virtues as a topical substitute for morning coffee! (Advanced Aromatherapy, Kurt Schaubelt, Ph.D., 1998)
Suzanne Catty, professional aromatherapist and author of “Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy”, agrees. “In high-stress periods both the hydrolate and the oil can be used as an aromatic pick-me-up that can replace afternoon or evening coffee breaks.”
Black spruce can be a useful remedy for chronic infections, discouragement, menstrual disorders, mental fatigue/burnout, muscle aches and pains, and for weakened stamina. It may also help boost self-esteem and self-confidence, ease depression, balance weight issues, help with respiration (tight breathing), and increase general vitality and immunity.
Together, Scotch pine and Black spruce afford a wonderful synergy as an expectorant and respiratory revitalizer for chronic conditions such as emphysema and asthma. They are also a useful blend for immune deficiencies and the endocrine system.
At an emotional level Black spruce can be relied upon to ground, stabilize, and energize while connecting people back to their true thoughts and feelings. It is as centering as a meditative walk in the forest all the while recreating a sense of self, confidence and purpose.
If you have not had an opportunity to try Black spruce essential oil yet, you may want to get hold of some. Its many uses make it a valuable addition to every essential oil toolkit.